Norfolk City Council held its annual retreat in Smithfield Monday and Tuesday. Some interesting things coming out of it, including one that is the topic of my column in today’s paper. (More on that tomorrow.)
Today, we see in print for the first time something that has been rumored for months: Mayor Paul Fraim wants to move the mayoral election to coincide with that of the superwards.
Currently, Norfolk hold council elections every two years. One cycle includes the five small wards plus the mayor and the other includes just the two superwards, each of which cover half the city.
In the last mayor/small wards election in 2010, turnout was 23%. That election featured the hotly contested race in Ward 5, in which Tommy Smigiel unseated long time incumbent Randy Wright.
The superwards contest in 2012 saw turnout of just over 10%. The Ward 6 race drew several challengers, but it was the lack of competitiveness in Ward 7 that pulled down the average turnout.
I don’t think moving the mayor’s race to the superward cycle is going to help turnout. In fact, I think it might depress it, simply because the five small ward battles will be fought within those boundaries. There will be no top-of-the-ticket race to raise awareness of the council elections.
What increases turnout is competition. What we need in Norfolk is more people willing to run for office – and more people willing to support them. There is no reason why any candidate runs uncontested. The wards are small enough that it doesn’t take a lot of money to run. A shoe-leather campaign is still possible.
As for this:
Councilwoman Theresa Whibley questioned whether the move would help turnout. She said moving Norfolk’s elections to November like other south Hampton Roads cities might be more effective.
“If our goal is to increase voter turnout, it’s obvious November would do that,” Whibley said. “We should broaden the discussion.”
I respectfully disagree with Whibley here. Local elections do not belong on the same ballot as national elections. If nothing else, I urge Whibley to read this article about Virginia Beach. November elections become all about the money. I don’t want that for my city.